Unbreakable

Unbreakable

I’ve always said this is Shyamalan’s best film. Sometimes I’ve even meant that as praise.

Okay, okay, no, bad. Bad. Starting over.

Anecdote time!

Unbreakable was actually the movie which convinced me that Shyamalan might be worthy of some of the intense post–Sixth Sense hype. I saw it in a matinee screening opening day, and was impressed by the glacial, self-consciously artificial storytelling on display, practically begging the viewer to actively engage with the nature of the medium as much as the narrative embedded within it, and to reflect (cough) on how one affects the other.

The audience I was with was less appreciative. Primed by the expectation of “a surprise ending”—What A Twist! was a meme long before it was an image macro—and guided by the heavy hand of the film’s foreshadowing, the audience audibly guessed where the movie was going well before the end, and groaned at the anticlimax. Personally, I didn’t care about any of that. The film “spoils” itself with the opening title card filled with statistics about comic books; literally nothing that follows is a surprise if you’re the viewer the film clearly wants you to be. Besides, at that point in my life I held (and to some degree still do hold) ideas about the nature of mass-market cinema which are not entirely incompatible with Elijah’s crackpot theories about the truths behind comic book tales of superheroes. (Let’s just say there’s a reason I was double-majoring in Classics and film.)

I was so fascinated by both the choices made by the film and the audience reaction that I made time to see it again the same day, a late night show in Times Square, before word of mouth would have too much effect. (This would have been the night before Thanksgiving in 2000; we still didn’t know for sure if Bush or Gore had won the presidential election, social media was primarily blogs and AIM, and while X-Men had come out just a few months earlier there was no way to be sure if it was an outlier or a trendsetter.) The second audience was a little younger, a lot rowdier, and even quicker on the draw than the matinee crowd. They mostly liked what they were seeing—except for Jackson’s decidedly non-badass Frederick Douglass meets Liberace look—but came to a consensus on the plot developments and twist almost immediately, and effectively dismissed the film before it even unspooled.

All of which is to say: M. Night Shyamalan stans, I hear you. Once, I was one of you. Your feelings are valid. The casual dismissal of craft and intent in his films can be frustrating.

(He still mostly sucks, though. I mean, my god, the ending intertitles in this movie just destroy the tone he spent all that effort setting up, the consistency with which he self-sabotages feels like it must be deliberate, but— No. No! I’m stopping myself here. I’ll save it for my rewatch of Split. For now, I want to remind myself that there was a time when I believed in The Man Who Heard Voices too.)

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